"Wreaths Across America gives people the opportunity to be part of something bigger than themselves."
"It's a life-changing" event as described by Wreaths Across America Executive Director Karen Worcester and the 2016 Escort to Arlington National Cemetery is now part of history. As always, it was a remarkable journey filled with memorable moments as law enforcement, veterans, Gold Star families, and others engaged in the mission to remember, honor, and teach in what is billed as the "largest veteran's parade in the nation."
Traveling from eastern Maine to Virginia, the convoy of escort vehicles and tractor-trailer rigs filled with balsam fir remembrance wreaths often stretched for miles as it rolled down the highway stopping at schools, American Legion posts, and other community centers. Citizens lined the streets and overpasses waving flags, holding signs, and shouting "thank you" or rhythmically chanting "USA, USA, USA!"
The Grand Marshal for the 2016 Escort to Arlington was Candy Martin, national President of the American Gold Star Mothers organization. Her perspective may have been unique as a mother who lost a son in Iraq, and as a combat veteran herself having served 38 years in the U.S. Army.
"The whole thing and what happens with the Wreaths Across America mission to remember honor, and teach is so much bigger than anyone can imagine, but the escort and being the Grand Marshal was the highlight of my year," Candy expressed.
The formal ceremonies started in Maine before the full escort's departure on its trek to Arlington. A sunrise prayer at the West Quoddy Head Light State Park was followed by the HART (Honoring Allies Remembering Together) ceremony on the U.S.-Candaian border in Calais, Maine.
"It was powerful greeting the Silver Cross families again (Canada's equivalent to America's Gold Star families) knowing their sons died for the same reasons our sons did, believing in a better world; believing there was something better than tyranny. It's heartwarming to see two allies, the United States and Canada, come together for a big purpose like that. It's really special."
A stop in New York, listed on the itinerary as a "private stop" for security purposes, was a planned tribute honoring Candy's son, 1 LT Thomas Martin during a sunrise ceremony at West Point Military Academy. Candy and her husband Ed were surprised to learn the ceremony was in honor of Tom, but Candy quickly changed the focus to other patriots buried at West Point, calling on the Wreaths Across America theme for 2016, "Say Their Names."
Aside from the West Point Sunrise service, Candy says the visit to the Liberation Monument in Liberty State Park New Jersey was one of the most impactful stops for her during the journey. Holocaust Survivor Luna Kaufman and World War II Liberator Thurman Pace were on hand to greet the escort participants for the wreath-laying ceremony.
"It touched my heart," explains Candy. "When I think about what that monument meant to her because she was a Holocaust survivor. I thought about that and the millions of people that the United State has gone in to help save, to help liberate those countries, not to invade but to give them their lives and their livelihoods back, what we take for granted so many times here in the United States."
Greetings by the school children, faculty and staff at participating welcome stops along the route energized all the escort participants.
"Seeing their pride was amazing and that took the mission to the next level as we teach the next generation that freedom isn't free and there's a reason why we do what we do, and that we're a great nation."
Candy says she is grateful to have had the Grand Marshal experience with the 2016 Escort to Arlington. Currently, as many as 22 American Gold Star Mothers serve as Location Coordinators and Candy challenges other American Gold Star Mothers to get involved in their local communities with the Wreaths Across America mission to remember, honor, and teach.